Interview with Erin Schwab

Line Gallery: The drawings in your Migrating Colony series in terms of subject matter focus on tree fungi. Can you speak about what attracted you to this subject matter?

Erin Schwab: After I had finished my thesis work in Edmonton I was hired to teach at a College in Fort McMurray. Because my work revolves around natural forms found in the landscape the vocabulary around the work I was previously doing no longer seemed relevant in my new home. I had gone from flat farm land to Boreal forest, so it was like learning a new language in this alien environment. It took me a few years of wandering around in the woods before I found a form that spoke of the place. I’ve always been interested in creating icons out of natural forms that speak to the transitory aspects of nature, the mushrooms relationship to their environment satisfied my desire to capture the quite passing of something almost immeasurable. A relationship between forms that I feel privileged to witness.


LG: When we were installing your exhibition you told me about how the fungi are actually a sign that the tree is unwell. I found that interesting because it is as if these “specimens” are omens of what is to come, which is of course the death of the tree. This got me thinking about how your most recent drawing Flood, which is a definite shift from the fungi drawings, is equally dark and foreboding. Flood captures the aftermath of a flood, but I also think it highlights the potential for reoccurring destruction in our lives, as floods often happen again in the same locations. Have you been thinking of your work in this way and how are you thinking about the transition that has occurred in your work moving you towards Flood?

ES: It’s not that the tree is unwell; the tree is in a decline, getting older and dying. I guess I don’t see that as foreboding. I see that as renewal in a natural system. A healthy system is not one of endless bounty and uninterrupted life. There is no Eden. People tend to see signs of evil doing in natural processes like a tree dying, forest fires, hurricanes and floods. They look for the sin that caused the biblical plague. A flood or fire allows a forest to clear away waste, refresh the soil. We see ourselves so apart from nature, but maybe we are just another way of cleansing the system. Maybe we are a flood.


LG: Your drawings would be categorized by most people as highly representational, but I know that you don’t think about your work in this way. Can you explain?

ES: Representational work is commonly talked about away and outside of process. Who cares about how you draw it as long as the end result looks real. But for me, drawing is a process of notation, of minute abstract marks that react off of each other. Instead of large gestures of abstraction I’m interested in millimetre by millimetre gestures that compile to create an echo of a form. Every mark I lay down is a reaction to the mark that was laid before it, not a reaction to my resource image. Working this way helps me make decisions based on what’s best for the drawing not what’s best for the representational or photo-realistic qualities. It helps me detach.


LG: Could you speak a bit about your working process?  How do you develop a drawing?

ES: I start by collecting the things that interest me. In this case I had boxes full of mushrooms that I gathered on walks. Then I set up a photo shoot, normally on a white background with strong lighting. After shooting as many different set ups as I can I import the images into Photoshop. There I have a ton of control over lighting, composition, tone. When I’m editing I filter the images through my drawing brain, meaning I don’t edit them to look like good photos, I edit them to be great source material for drawing. A good photo doesn’t always make a good drawing. Tonally they function very differently. Then I print the successful images and decided from there which image I want to work from. From there it’s just a slow process of finding the right drawing tool to give you the right mark. Sometimes I’m surrounded by scraps of paper twisted to give me one or two swipes before they are tossed for being too flat. I don’t like using charcoal pencils, I like transferring charcoal with a stump to the paper. I feel like I have more control over the tone that way.


LG: Many of our visitors remarked on the technical aspects of your drawings. Would you say that your skill came quite naturally, or was it something that you had to learn?

ES: I would say that I always had an eye for it. I was that kid in grade three that took more pride in a perfectly copied pencil crayon drawing of a whale than the actual writing assignment. But I worked at it. I have no problem spending 100 hours on a drawing, which got me into a bit of hot water in art school. I wanted to slow down and really spend time “looking”. My teachers always wanted me to work on quantity or learning through physical experience, learn by making a fast 100 drawings, but I always felt I could learn more my being present for every mark I put down. There are 100 drawings within one.


LG: What do you think brought you to the practice of drawing? Why do you think you came to focus on drawing as opposed to another medium?

ES: I don’t like working in color. Colour is too decorative and distracting for the ideas I’m trying to work out; ideas of form and relationships between forms, between object and surface. And I’ve always been obsessed over the perfect gesture of a drawing tool on paper. It’s so immediate and permanent. Every mark on that fragile sheet of paper has so much to say; who made it, how it was made, how fast they worked, whether they messed up and erased. You can’t gesso over a sheet of paper and start over, if you over work the paper it breaks down. And because I am restricting myself by the use of a fragile black and grey medium I have to be so much more aware of the placement of every mark so that when you get it right, it’s precious.


LG: Have there been any influential individuals or experiences that have contributed to the development of your practice?

ES: I didn’t go to galleries growing up. We lived in a small blue collar town where my family wasn’t too concerned with anything beyond their front lawn – garage bands and Anne Geddies. What my parents were concerned about was their kids making a life that they wanted not that they had to have. So they sent me to the trenches of Art School where I felt like I had to catch up most the time. Up till that point I didn’t know art was about ideas, it wasn’t enough to be slick. It wasn’t till grad school that I started to put it all together. There my advisors Sean Caulfield and Liz Ingram posed some questions that floored me. The revelation of “maybe it’s done”. When I graduated and moved to Fort McMurray one of my co-workers, Robin Smith-Peck helped me through the revelation of “the notation of the real”. I never lived anywhere that had much art to look at outside of books or the web, so moving to a place that had none didn’t seem like the cultural dead end like most people view it. Maybe my work would have moved in a different direction early on if I had seen a Rothko in real life.


LG: Are there any drawing artists that you have been looking at recently? Are there any Canadian drawing artists we should check out?

ES: I’ve always lived in Alberta, the land of Abstract Painting, where there is very little drawing going on let alone realism which was a dirty word in the art community. My favourite series of drawings in Alberta are by Violet Owen, a series of charcoal portraits in the AFA Collection that left a lump in my throat for weeks. Other than that, whenever I need to feel good about my medium I go to Jim Dine’s tool drawings. All the vocabulary is there.

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